Helpful Tips: How to Handle Back-To-School Stress and Anxiety

August 30, 2016

It’s that time here in the United States: back-to-school. Millions of America’s children are heading back to the classroom to start a brand-new year, and with that time can come a tremendous amount of fear, stress, and anxiety for both child and parent. We reached out to Dr. Belisa Vranich, PsyD, renowned clinical psychologist, author, and public speaker, for some helpful tips and advice to make this school year a bit less stressful:

Philosophy: Let’s start with back to school stressors. Why do most children stress about going back to school?
Dr. Vranich: “A lot of children have a fantasy of being able to change over the summer and return to school a better version of themselves: cooler, stronger, and/or prettier. I think coming back to see where they are in the classroom hierarchy is really important to them. Since popularity, sports, grades and social interaction are so important to them, they have these fantasies that they’ll lose weight, gain muscle, get faster, become smarter, cooler — whatever. You can only gain the specifics of their desires from talking to them. But many have hopes of returning to school and everybody being surprised at how good they look or some dramatic change will have occurred, and the year will be better. The new school year is like New Year’s Day to school-age children.

Philosophy: How do you help kids adjust to returning to school knowing the changes they desired might not have happened, or that nothing will have changed as a result?
Dr. Vranich: “I think a lot of parents don’t realize that going back to school is has so much gravity. They have these hopes that things will just ‘work out.’ I think it’s important to really let them know they’re supported by their parents. Even the smartest, most popular kid would like to come back to school smarter, better looking or with a better performance, be more liked, transformed, etc.”

Philosophy: So, the stress has a lot to do with peer pressure?
Dr. Vranich: “Right, peer pressure, but also about what kind of kid will I be this year? Am I going to be the kid that is bullied or more popular? Will people like me? Have I gotten prettier over the summer? Have I lost weight over the summer? Every kid has a fantasy of what they hoped would happen over the summer, so when they show up for school the change will be interesting or magical. Every January, adults have these really big hopes and dreams for themselves, that they’ll become more evolved, insightful, healthy, spiritual, etc. It’s September for school-age children.”

Philosophy: How do you best support their needs during that time?
Dr. Vranich: “I think acknowledging their feelings is crucial, really understanding that they’re hopeful about something. Getting them to talk about it I think is really great, about their hopes and worries. Ask them about their expectations for the year, and get them to talk about any anxieties around bullying, class structure, the girl or boy they liked — all of it. That way, even if what they hoped for doesn’t happen, they’ve talked about it and you know what’s happening so you can continue the conversation. You can talk to them about how adults feel the same way. You go to a new job and hope you have good people around you and may be anxious that person next to you isn’t a jerk, and that your boss is nice and recognizes your accomplishments. Explaining the adult equivalent and how you deal with it might be incredibly helpful. “

Philosophy: Let’s talk about parents stressing about their kids going back to school. Why would this occur?
Dr. Vranich: “If you have a kid that has had trouble in school, that might cause anxiety in parents. You pray that everybody will be nice to your kid, that they won’t be bullied. When you are really connected to your child and someone’s mean to them, it just crushes you. You want everyone to love your kid as much as you do and acknowledge their accomplishments, even if it’s that they make a little more eye contact, are a little less shy or more confident. You hope they aren’t crushed by their peers, and hope people will give them a chance.”

Philosophy: How can parents handle their own stress about their kids going back to school?
Dr. Vranich: “Parents, you can make your kid really anxious. Your kid looks to you as to how they should act, so if you’re uptight and worried about what they are wearing and saying you’ll just make them more anxious. Keep your own feelings in check.

Philosophy: What about the stress when a kid is attending a new school?
Dr. Vranich: “That’s a whole other level of stress, the lack of knowing anyone is terrible. The good news is that children who were bullied may have an easier time because they have a clean slate and don’t have the traumatic memories of having been bullied there. Depending on your experience, a new school could be a good thing. If it’s a new school and you have no friends, you might wonder how you’ll fit in, but it might be the best thing that ever happened to you. You get to reinvent yourself to a certain degree, which can be a life-changing event for a child who struggled in a previous school. Parents should be as supportive and communicative as possible when their child is attending a new school. Ask them how you can support them, and then follow through.